Meet one of the last remaining inshore fishermen working off Suffolk’s coast
PUBLISHED: 07:57 12 May 2020 | UPDATED: 10:31 12 May 2020
Generations of inshore fishermen have helped shape our east coast ‘towns of the sea’. Gary Doy is one of this diminishing breed | Words: Richard Negus - Photos: Sarah Farnsworth
The beaches are full. From the pier to Gun Hill it is nigh impossible to get to the sea, such is the throng of fishing boats hauled up on the shingle.
The boats don't use the harbour. It is heavily silted and filled with snags. The air is a heady mix of fish reek, rough shag tobacco and ribald language.
Bearded men with skin like a doctor's satchel mend nets, leaning against the hulls of their clinker built craft. Robed in cavernous sea boots, thick jerseys and caps they await the tide.
From outside the Sailor's Reading Room, bent backed and cotton wool whiskered members of the previous generation stare down on the scene and criticise what they see.
A handful of tourists scurry along the prom fearful lest their daughters catch the twinkling eye of the younger fishermen, tanned, muscled like fighting dogs and fearful of little. This was Southwold little over 100 years ago.
Southwold was once a town of the sea rather than a 'seaside town'. Fishing was its lifeblood. Two world wars, changing consumer tastes, shrinking fishery exclusion zones and over-bearing bureaucracy succeeded in virtually destroying the once booming industry here.
A dedicated number of hardy souls still fish the shallow, ever changing waters of Sole Bay, so named after the delicately flavoured flat fish that favour these muddy seas. If you ask any of the tiny handful of Southwold fishermen what finally sounded fishing's death knell here and around our coast the reply is unanimous - the EU.
This article is no place to engage in debates about our leaving the European Union, but suffice to say for those who daily risk their lives at sea to catch the fish that swim there, the merest mention of Brussels will elicit more bad language than any fouled net or visit from a representative of the ministry.
My cousin, Gary Doy, is the last full time Southwold born and bred fisherman to ply his trade out of the Blackshore.
I should of course use his proper name. Along this coast most of the men were known by their nicknames. Sons inherited their father's nickname prefixed with the word 'Boy'. Gary's dad, the legendary Dutter Doy, ensured Gary became 'Boy Dutter'.
Gary epitomises the original spirit of this town, a timeless spirit that remains captivating and reassuringly authentic against the eye wateringly expensive second homes and high street populated by luxury clothing brands.
He is the working man, heading to sea with the tide, like his father and grandfather before him. Eyes bluer than the sky, cheeks rouged by North Easterly winds. He smiles and laughs easily.
When he does the family resemblance with my mother shines through. A glinting gold hoop in each ear look totally correct under his fish scaled and stained cap.
The tattoos on his arms of anchors and bathing belles are like the rings on a tree, marking the decades of his fishing life. No actor, no weekend sailor or pleasure boater could look like him, move like him or mimic him. Gary Doy is of the sea.
I joined Gary on a warm, calm July morning to trawl for flat fish. He goes out seven days a week, I was merely on a one-off jaunt to get some fish for my friend, Grant Newland, the chef and owner of the Kings Arms in Haughley.
We set out of harbour on Gary's boat, Crofter, at 6am. If I hadn't tagged along he would have slipped his moorings at 2am. The sun broke through the broken grey cloud, ringing it like the rind of a satsuma.
Sailing south, the wide beamed, red hulled trawler chugged against the tide at a gentle 1.5 knots. The crippling price of fuel means that high revving and speed is the preserve of the gin palace sailor.
Professional fishermen can afford no such polluting profligacy. Walberswick passed to starboard and, as we approached Dunwich, Gary lowered his net for a 'tow'. The net itself is thick nylon, woven by hand in a diamond pattern. Gary calls it his onion sack.
There is a large patch of square netting on top of the trawl net which enables smaller fish to swim away untouched. A series of small rubber rings pulls the net to the sea floor, a mere 30 feet beneath us.
These rings then ensure the trawl net merely bumps over the sea floor where the flat fish live, the diamond mesh ensnares them. Once on the bottom we started our tow heading away from home, treading a sea lane that Southwold fishermen have sailed for millennia. After an hour of trawling Gary set to hauling his nets.
The winches whined as the ropes raised the catch. Our tow had taken us over the course of the old river Dunwich. I am sad to say that the myth of an underwater town is merely that.
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Suffolk folk don't let valuable ecclesiastical stone merely tumble into the sea, they use it for foundations for houses and barns. Therefore, no lost church snagged the net.
We did, however, fall foul of something possibly even older. As the first of the flapping soles appeared over the stern, a looming dark shape followed beneath them. Totally scrambled in the net came a fossilised tree stump. Gary estimated it to be at least a ton in weight.
Tying off the portion of the net with the haul of fish he worked feverishly for an hour to rid us of the unwanted by-catch. To no avail. He eventually cut a large hole and the carbonised piece of pre-history slipped back beneath the rolling swell.
Back to sorting the catch. Soles, flounders, dabs and skate skidded onto the freshly washed deck. It was marked how few fish Gary caught other than his target species.
Inshore fishermen with a lifetime of knowledge such as he has fish sustainably. The handful of undersized fish that came up, and a solitary hen crab, were returned alive to the water.
With the hole in the net irreparable at sea we returned to harbour, as Gary gutted his catch. A small, unprofitable haul, a torn net, a capsize-threatening ton of unwanted timber, yet Gary still smiled. He was doing what he loved and his catch would be on sale in his hut in Reydon by that afternoon.
Grant waited for us back at the harbour. He and his partner, Lucy Jones, run the Kings Arms at Haughley.
Grant knows that to obtain the freshest sustainable fish it pays to get down to the harbour. Striding down the gangway to the boat, pristine in his chef's whites, his eyes gleamed at the catch glistening on ice.
Gary's lightening quick hands dressed the skate wings and skinned some soles to transfer to Grant's cool box.
Waving our goodbyes to Gary as he mended his nets we drove back to mid Suffolk so that Grant could weave his magic with these Sole Bay jewels.
Personally I believe it the mark of a good cook that when presented with the freshest and most delicate ingredients that they make the natural flavours talk. Plenty of ego driven chefs add foams, glazes, puff and fluff. Grant has no ego, he believes in cooking the finest local fresh produce, simply and perfectly.
The beautiful décor of the Kings Arms echoes this ethos. You will find no pretension here. Since they took the pub on three years ago the changes the couple have made are admirable, the beams belong there, the glasses gleam, the furniture is comfortable. It is a restaurant that retains its pub feel and credentials.
In the small kitchen freshly podded broad beans and peas were boiled, along with Jersey Royals. These were then tossed together in local rapeseed oil and lemon juice. Then came the fish.
Grant had turned the flounder into goujons. This underappreciated fish was then breadcrumbed and deep fried into delicious morsels.
Dipped in a sublime light sauce, it is a dish that will be forever known as 'Flounder à la Gary. The delicate soles Grant simply pan fries in plenty of butter. When plated up they receive a drizzle of a perfectly balanced hot tartare sauce.
Visit the Kings Arms, meet Grant and Lucy and try these delights for yourself. I also urge you to buy your fish from Boy Dutter.
Talk to Gary of Southwold and you will learn more about how fishermen such as he helped shape this quirky little town clinging to the far eastern reaches of our islands.
Also lament that there are so few of his breed left.
Doy and Son Fresh Fish
Weather and catch permitting open 1.30pm - 6pm
7 Elliot Avenue, Reydon, Southwold, Suffolk
T: 01502 723380
The Kings Arms, Haughley open Wednesday - Sunday
3 Old Street, Haughley, Suffolk, IP14 3NT
T: 01449 257120, thekingsarmshaughley.co.uk